There are many of us, and I enthusiastically include myself, who believe the Negroni is a perfect cocktail. Invented in 1919 from equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth and gin, the Negroni is bitter and sweet, bracing and somehow refreshing, it is civilization’s best mixological achievement and the apotheosis of all that is good and right in this world. The Negroni is unimprovable; when you’re standing on the summit, a step in any direction is a step down.
So what’s the White Negroni doing here? The White Negroni was invented in 2001 by English bartender Wayne Collins in a move of apparent desperation. Collins, along with Plymouth Gin director Nick Blacknell, had traveled from London to Bordeaux for a spirits exposition and the gentlemen were struck one evening, as cocktail people often are, with a sudden and urgent thirst for a Negroni. They went to what passed for a liquor store but, finding no Campari, opted for Suze, a French bitter liqueur—similar in type to Campari but highlighter yellow instead of Campari’s candy-apple red—and the light local Lillet Blanc instead of sweet vermouth. Collins stirred it up and served it with a slice of fresh grapefruit, and both gentlemen, pleased, agreed that the drink deserved a name. Collins, in a flash of insight, saw the drink’s potential: “Let’s just call it a White Negroni,” he said. The Negroni was the inspiration, after all, and it follows the same template, just with the two red ingredients subbed for white ones (yellow, really, but then as now, “Yellow Negroni” feels unacceptable). The drink made its way across the channel to London, then across the ocean to New York, and once Audrey Saunders started serving it at her legendary SoHo bar Pegu Club, it quickly spread around the world.
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The White Negroni is a wonderful little drink. In its best incarnation it’s both less sweet and less bitter than its famous big brother, with more of a focus on spiced delicacy than punchy depth, and Collins and Blacknell were correct that it deserved a name. Their choice, however, is a double-edged sword: Would it have become the world-famous neo-classic it is if it were called the “Bordeaux Surprise?” Certainly not. But on the other hand, calling it a White Negroni invites comparisons to what many of us think is the greatest cocktail in the world. It’s like if you made a rise-and-fall gangster movie and called it Goodfellas II. Why would you do that to yourself?
At the same time, not being a legendary classic has its upsides. The lack of canonical reverence for the White Negroni gives us the freedom to mess with it as we see fit. Over the last 20 years bartenders have changed the specs and used different ingredients and appended it with things like chamomile bitters or champagne vinegar, and of the hundreds of recipes out there, it’s an actual challenge to find two that completely agree with each other. I certainly have my favorite (below), but the template is versatile enough to embrace experimentation. Besides—it’s dull to only ever make one thing, no matter how perfect that thing might be.
1.5 oz. Plymouth Gin
0.75 oz. Cocchi Americano
0.75 oz. Suze
Add all ingredients to a rocks glass with a large piece of ice and stir for 10 to 15 seconds. Garnish with a grapefruit peel. Enjoy.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Measurements: Collins originally did equal parts, as one would a classic Negroni. This doesn’t not work, but it’s a level of sweetness that we generally find unacceptable in cocktails (that is, in anything but a classic Negroni). Personally, I prefer to reduce the measurements of the vermouth and liqueur, not necessarily to allow the gin to speak more loudly, but to keep the sweetness in check.
Gin: Honestly, lots of gins work here, but my favorite version sticks to Collins’ original. Plymouth has a fuller body that, in this build, provides the canvas for the other flavors to shine. Also great was Beefeater, but its thinner texture and higher proof make it a little too hot at the ratios above. If I were doing Beefeater, I’d raise the Cocchi Americano and Suze to 1oz each.
Cocchi Americano: While the original used the French Lillet Blanc, I feel fairly strongly that Cocchi Americano is the best choice. Dolin Blanc is good but not better, and my usual sleeper favorite Yzaguirre Blanco was same. I love Lillet, and prefer it in drinks like the Corpse Reviver #2, but here, Cocchi takes the day—it is fuller, with a gorgeous spice that fleshes out the front palate, and it mixes with Suze like a dream. If you’re using Suze, it’s worth picking up a bottle just for this purpose.
Suze: There’s a ton of Suze competitors, and most of them are pretty good. Most recipes call for Suze by name, but you’ll also find Tempus Fugit Kina l’Aero d’Or, Saler’s, Aveze, Luxardo Bitter Bianco, and others. You can make any of these work—the charm of the Negroni template is its versatility—but in all our tests, I found myself gravitating toward Suze again and again. It’s got a sharp-edged gentian bitterness, with dandelions and chamomile and a slight honeyed sweetness, and works here beautifully.
Garnish: Again, your choice. Almost all the recipes for a White Negroni call for a lemon peel, which does indeed work well—the simple bright lemon oil helps cut through the sweetness of the liqueurs. Personally, though, I prefer a grapefruit peel, which adds textured bitter aromatics and I think makes the whole thing more interesting. That being said, I’ve come to understand that I like grapefruits more than most people, so choose your own adventure.
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